Christmas Traditions

christmas5Did you know that Jesus was most likely not born on December 25th?

The story behind this widely accepted date is a fascinating one. The most likely date of Christ’s birth is thought to have been in the autumn, around the time of the Jewish feast of Tabernacles. The earliest records of a feast in honor of this birth are from a church in Alexandria, Egypt in 200AD, although the celebration only became widely accepted in the third and fourth centuries.

christmas6As early Christians spread across Roman Europe, they found widespread celebration of the feast celebrating the Roman god Saturn. In northern Europe, they were exposed to the Feast of Yule, a widespread solstice celebration for many tribes and clans. In the East, the Festival of the Invincible Sun was the major winter celebration. Along the way, in order to communicate their faith in a way that was relevant to the cultures they were in, they decided to take over these traditions and turn them into a celebration of Christ’s birth. The celebration thus moved into the winter season.

christmas10In the process, many customs and traditions associated with the older festivals became part of the Christian tradition. Many homes today still celebrate Christmas with decorations of evergreen wreaths, holly, and mistletoe, along with Christmas trees and colored lights. Santa Claus or Father Christmas, caroling throughout neighborhoods, exchanging presents, and attending parties are other ancient traditions assimilated into the celebration of Christ’s birth.

All these are examples of contextualization – which has been referred to by some as ‘the genius of the Christian faith’. Biblical faith should not force you to abandon your culture. Rather, it embraces the best parts of culture as having been placed there by God since creation as signposts to and indicators of God’s existence. Consequently, there is no culture that is superior to others. Each culture uniquely reflects the beauty of God’s creation!

Most churches in the East began observing the feast on January 6th while Western churches observed it on 25th of December. By the end of the fourth century however, almost all Christian churches had accepted the December date. It was not until the 11th Century, that the word ‘Christmas’ was first used, from the Old English phrase ‘Cristes Maesse’, which means “the Mass of Christ.”

christmas11Across the world, different cultures have added their own twist to Christmas celebrations. Coptic Christians in Ethiopia and Egypt celebrate Christmas on 7th of January. In India, they decorate banana or mango trees, while in Ghana, palm trees are laden with candles. In Finland, people visit graves of their relatives to light a candle on Christmas Eve.

christmas12In the Philippines, children leave their brightly polished shoes and washed socks on windowsills for the three kings to fill at night. In Ghana, Christmas dinner is not complete without fufu and okra soup while in Liberia, rice, beef and biscuits are what make it happen! Zimbabweans make sure they have plenty of bread, jam and tea to eat along with their goat meat.

christmas9In our own part of the world, the entire region literally shuts down for two weeks as people travel upcountry to celebrate with family members and loved ones. Matatu fares shoot up in the process, and malls and bars everywhere are filled with revelers. Churches throng with worshippers singing Christmas Carols. Goats and chickens are consumed in great numbers.

All this to celebrate the momentous life that changed history!

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Reason For The Season

christmas1Wow, it’s so hard to believe that 2013 is almost over! The radio stations are filling the airwaves with Christmas Carols and the malls have put up their giant Christmas trees. Traffic is a lot more bearable because of the school holidays. Sale signs are everywhere, as retailers prepare for an influx of shoppers. For many companies, it’s that frantic time to complete work targets before the year ends. But despite that, there’s that feeling in the air that the Christmas holiday is almost here!

christmas2And so we enter what is a favorite time of the year for many. A time when our economy practically shuts down for two weeks so that Kenyans can travel upcountry and join family members in end-of-year festivities. A time when countless goats and chickens give up their lives to satiate the hunger of many who have toiled through the year for this moment. And bars across the nation stock up so as not to run dry before the pockets of their reveling patrons do!

As we prepare for the celebrations, it is appropriate that we pause for a moment to reflect on the reason for the season. Christmas is a celebration of the moment that divided history into two. According to the bible, an unprecedented event took place two thousand years ago in the nondescript village of Bethlehem, Judah. The creator intervened in human affairs by being born to a peasant family and then for thirty-three years lived among humans as one of us, sharing our tribulations and frailty, in order to demonstrate how He had originally intended for us to live.

christmas3Ultimately, Christmas is a celebration of God’s love. That humans are not alone in the universe. And that we have a Creator who cares enough for us to step down into our space, and to help us who cannot help ourselves.

In light of that, we have every reason to celebrate the Christmas season! By all means shop and eat and spend time with your loved ones. But an even more appropriate way to celebrate the season is by being a blessing to those who do not have what we have. In the same way that our Creator sacrificially gave to us, we too are called to give to others!

christmas4There are myriad ways to do this. You could as a family host a Christmas party for a children’s home. You could take in a foster child for a few weeks. You could visit and share supplies with spinal injury or cancer patients in your local hospital. You could give a year’s education scholarship to one of your worker’s children. The list is as long as your imagination!

We need to teach our children how to have an attitude of gratitude and not of entitlement. We need to teach them that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And Christmas is a great opportunity to do this.

I dare you to celebrate this Christmas season differently, and to be a blessing as you yourself have been blessed.

Created For More!

profit

The sole purpose of business?

I had a delightful dinner recently with two business executives who work for one of the largest food companies in the world. Through their very influential positions, they have pioneered an alternative economics model that challenges the prevailing global paradigm that the sole purpose of business is to maximize shareholder profit.

‘The economics of mutuality’ as they’ve dubbed it, is based on the biblical Jubilee concept in Leviticus 25 and sees the three-fold purpose of business as being to provide for ‘people, planet and profits’. In other words, the company’s managers in their numerous units across the world will only be considered successful if their business adds real value to all the people involved (farmers, buyers, factory workers, distributors and consumers), leaves a positive environmental impact and also brings reasonable profit to shareholders. This humongous multinational with turnover larger than Kenya’s GDP is seeking to implement this revolutionary model across the board so that the company’s success is measured from all three bottom lines!

triplebottomlineWith the blessing and funding of their company, my friends are also working with one of the world’s most prestigious universities to design an alternative MBA to educate the next generation of business majors differently. Their goal is to change how we all think about business. There is much openness to their work, especially after the global economic crisis revealed the brokenness in our prevailing individualism-driven, greed-based capitalistic approach to business.

I really enjoyed the meeting with the two gentlemen. Apart from my obvious fascination with their work, it was fun watching them in conversation. Their eyes lit up and it was clear that this was more than just a job to them. It seemed to me that they would have done what they were doing even if their company wasn’t paying for it!

thankgoditsmondayAfterwards, I reflected on how many people today are trapped in jobs that they don’t enjoy and that don’t have any meaning for them other than their monthly paycheck. So many dread Mondays and thank God when it’s Friday! And many people I know are miserably waiting for the day when they eventually make enough money so that they will be able to do more meaningful things that will give them joy.

The good book says that God pre-designed each one of us for a unique purpose. None of us is here by coincidence or by accident. None of us was designed to simply be born, go to school, get a job, make money, get married, have children, retire and die. There is a much bigger reason for your existence! When like my two friends we discover and begin to live out that purpose, we understand that our natural talents, passions, personality and even our life experiences (whether positive or negative) are all gifts to help us excel in the thing that we were created for!

You owe it to yourself to discover and pursue your purpose. Your family, friends, neighborhood, workplace, industry, nation, continent and even the entire world could end up being dramatically impacted for the better when you do!

Every Child Is Gifted!

pharmacistWhen I was in high school, my heartfelt ambition and desire was to be a pharmacist. I still remember the day when that idea was planted into my mind. My dad was driving me back to boarding school after the holidays and I asked him what career choice could make someone rich as quickly as possible. Absentmindedly, he mentioned that a couple of his richest friends were pharmacists. Unknown to him, he had just set my career direction for the next few years! All my subject choices thereafter were made with this goal in mind, to become a rich pharmacist.

education2How did you end up deciding what to do as a career? Few of us as children had someone thoughtfully guide us in our future career choices. Instead, the choices were made for us through what some family member thought would provide the greatest financial security, or through other random acts of fate. Many of my friends in my university days had little passion for the degree course they were studying. In fact, our street translation of the acronym BA (Bachelor of Arts) was ‘Baba Amenituma’, which means ‘my dad sent me’. This was because many were in school studying subjects that only their parents thought were important!

The unfortunate result of poor or no career guidance is many frustrated young graduates who enter careers they have little passion for or interest in. They dread going to work on Mondays and heave a huge sigh of relief every Friday! Along with those are thousands of others who have not been able to get a job in their area of training and yet are unable to translate their years of learning into solutions for societal problems around which they can build a business. As one wise man put it to me, we are a nation of schooled people who are highly uneducated!

wayne rooneyMany parents are unwitting accomplices in creating this problem. We stress our children to get A’s in their exams creating the impression that children who are not academically gifted are failures in life. And yet every child, including those not academically inclined, has innate talents and strengths that can help them uniquely succeed in life. Wayne Rooney, Juliani and Eric Omondi are great examples that today, you don’t have to become a medical doctor to have great impact on people and culture, and to create wealth in the process!

educationThis last week, 840,000 primary school students across the country sat for their KCPE exams. Many of them did so with fear, based on the knowledge that their final grade will have a significant bearing on the way their lives turn out. I want to challenge all parents, uncles, aunties and teachers reading this. Let’s definitely encourage the candidates to do their best. But even as they do so, let’s affirm and encourage development of their innate God-given talents.

Every child is uniquely gifted to be a success in life. They only need to find someone who believes in them and calls out that gifting!

Moral Shortcuts

yellow_feverI remember the day like it was yesterday. I had diligently planned the business trip for several weeks. The ticket was paid for, foreign currency purchased, and trip details planned. Just as I was about to go to bed the night before, I did a last minute check. It was then that I realized my yellow fever vaccination card had expired! I knew the said country was pretty fussy about it. With a sinking feeling, I realized that despite all my planning, there was a possibility I might be sent back home or not even allowed on the flight at all! To make things worse, my ticket was non refundable. What a nightmare!

As I perused the card, I saw a possible way out. A simple change would put its expiry date well within my travel dates. Coincidentally, I had a pen of the exact color required. What a fortuitous turn of events! I gratefully changed the date before slipping into bed.

moralshortcutsEver had times when you felt the pressure justified a moral shortcut? You’re running late for a meeting and feel compelled to overlap. Or a cop stops you and asks for a bribe and your option is to miss that important interview. Or the procurement officer wants a cut before your company gets the deal. Or you so badly want that deal that you’re tempted to give your client a deadline that you know is completely unrealistic.

Most people agree that grand corruption is a huge threat to this nation’s future. We speak with disgust about the Goldenberg and Anglo leasing scandals or more recently of looting in Westgate by security officials. What we often fail to do is tie our ‘moral shortcuts’ to the larger problems of grand corruption. And yet the only difference between our personal every-day corruption and grand national-level corruption is simply the scale of the opportunity!

moralshortcuts2Character has been defined as ‘who you are when no one’s looking’. That moral shortcut you’re facing today may not seem huge. And yes it’s possible that no one else will be harmed by it. It’s even possible no one else will ever know about it. But you will. And when you compromise in the little things, you will likely compromise in the big ones as well.

That night, after I changed the date, I couldn’t sleep! Eventually I confessed my misdeed to my wife who advised me to drive to a hospital and get a new vaccination. I was eventually home after midnight. To my amazement when I landed the next day, the immigration official stamped my passport without asking for the card! The best part though was a clear conscience and the knowledge that I had made the right choice even though it was certainly the more difficult one.

American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said ‘The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops – no, but the kind of man the country turns out.’ Decide today to do make the right decision. Even if it’s the more difficult one!

Excellence From The Inside Out

runninglateHe was practically sprinting because of how late he was for the important meeting. He mind was on overdrive, striving to come up with an acceptable excuse. Finally, he opened the door to the boardroom. To his great relief, most of the other attenders had not yet arrived. Only the company secretary was there, and everyone knew she was always on time. After greeting her happily, he said, ‘Phew, I thought I was late!’

Okay, that’s a fictional story. But it’s one that is replayed many times every day in our city where we often run on AMT (African Mean Time)! The thinking is that if everyone else came later than me, then obviously I can’t be late. But this just a symptom of the fact that our standards of excellence are not based on an internal frame of reference but on what others around us are doing.

imitationSo guess what happens in Nairobi when you start an innovative business? Some sharp Kenyans will ‘copy paste’ it and soon everyone else will be doing it! This practice is not just the preserve of small ‘jua kali’ businesses. A few years ago, a local bank developed the innovative idea that they could lend to the ‘un-bankable’. After years of backbreaking labor, it finally began to pay off. So every other bank quickly rushed to copy what they were doing! ‘Copy and paste’ seems to be a national value. Have you ever noticed how identical most of our news programs are on TV, including the intro clock at a certain time? If you watch in black and white and ignore the company logo, it’s impossible to know what channel you’re watching!

Now I need to say at this point that there’s nothing wrong with doing market research or with adopting what is obviously working elsewhere! But we need to be careful that we’re not just following the herd, dependent on what others are doing. The inevitable result is inconsistency and mediocrity.

The good book has a great story about a civil servant named Daniel who regularly got promoted regardless of which government was in charge. After sixty years of public service, his envious opponents commissioned an audit of his work to try and get him fired. But it was futile! As the story goes, ‘Finally these men said, “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.”’

excellence3Daniel’s excellence was not based on who was watching or on what the competition was doing. It came out of knowing who he was and what God expected of him. You see, excellence is not something you put on for show. It’s not something you do for money or promotion. If you develop a lifestyle of excellence, you don’t come to meetings late because you know no one else keeps time. You don’t change your game plan every time the competition changes theirs. And you don’t need someone to look over your shoulders to get your work done well!

Do You Work Hard Or Smart?

muddy roadOne of our greatest strengths as Kenyans is that we are very adaptable. When the going get tough, we adapt! If the potholed road outside your house is muddy, you buy gumboots and pray for the day you’ll own a car! But this adaptability can also be a great weakness. It keeps us from constantly questioning the way things are and from building systems to help us change our reality.

As a child, I remember my dad remarking after a trip to the US that he thought Americans were very lazy. The reason was that they were always creating machines and systems to keep them from working hard! His background had taught him the value of working hard but not of working smart.  Not to be too had on my old man though because my own generation is not that different! A while back, I visited a German friend who lives on the outskirts of Nairobi. I was fascinated to discover that he had created his own electricity supply from damming a nearby river and created solar panels from local materials. In addition, his water supply was entirely from trapping all the rainwater from his roof into huge tanks!

rainwater harvestingThe reality is that none of that is rocket science. But while many of us pray for rain; we have little ability to store it when it comes. As a result, while my friend’s home city of Berlin only gets sixty five percent of Nairobi’s rainfall, no one worries about rain there; they never have droughts or power shortages because they have systems to use the little they get efficiently!

One of the reasons why we adapt to difficulty rather than create systems is because we feel we don’t have the time. I mean who has time to find out where the ward office is or how much CDF money has been set aside for roads in our area? But by creating our little private solutions, we fail to provide effective solutions for ourselves and those around us.

A second reason we prefer to adapt to difficulty is because of the benefits of inefficiency. If you write down your current job into manuals so that anyone can do it, people may no longer think you’re a genius! If you train others to run your company, people might no longer think you’re indispensable! Many working moms don’t have systems to help them manage their housework and kids. As a result, they’re always tired and even the time they spend with their kids is not pleasant. But the result is a martyr feeling – ‘I’m suffering for my kids’. Not having systems carries it’s own subtle reward!

The good book in Hosea 4:6 says ‘my people perish for lack of knowledge’. Note that it says knowledge not prayer! Investing in systems means that we stop bothering God with things we can do for ourselves and turn our prayers to the things that really count. As a friend once told me, God gave us a brain so that we can give Him a break!

What are the areas in your life that are sorely lacking in systems? What can you do this week to start working smart?

lack of knowledge